The EPL's best starting XI
It should be an exciting run-in for the English Premier League. Manchester United is poised to win a record 19th league title, but Arsenal is still in the hunt and Chelsea has somehow gotten itself back into the equation, too. The relegation battle, meanwhile, looks like it'll go down to the final day.
With just five games to play, we thought it would be a good time to pick the best starting XI in the Prem. There's a caveat: We limited ourselves to one player per team, so that we could recognize the outstanding contributions of players no matter where their teams happen to be in the table.
Here, then, is our best starting XI:
Keeper: Petr Cech, Chelsea
Having been widely recognized as the league's best goalkeeper in his first couple of seasons in the Premier League, Cech's reputation took a bit of a dip after the head injury he suffered at Reading in 2006. This season, he's quietly been back to his best -- Chelsea has conceded fewer goals than any other side -- and while the back four takes a large share of the credit for that, Cech finally looks to have regained his full confidence between the sticks.
Defender: Stephen Carr, Birmingham
Two years ago, Carr retired from football, unable to find a club. He had fallen down the pecking order at Newcastle as it was relegated from the Premier League, and his reputation suffered as a result. But Birmingham boss Alex McLeish invited the right back to train with the club in February 2009. That led to a short-term contract, which led to a two-year contract, which led to Carr becoming the club captain. This past February, he lifted Birmingham's first major trophy in half a century after the Blues beat Arsenal in the Carling Cup final. Carr has been one of the club's most consistent performers, being defensively solid while remaining extremely quick for a 34-year-old.
Defender: Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United
It was widely reported that Vidic was set to leave Old Trafford last summer, but keeping him at the club has turned out to be better than any incoming transfer United fans could have hoped for. Vidic has been top-class for a few years now, but this has been his best season in an United shirt. The center back is amazingly dominant in the air and fierce in the tackle. He's had a couple of nervous moments -- away at West Ham and Aston Villa, in particular -- but overall Vidic has been superb.
Defender: Aaron Hughes, Fulham
Hughes is one of the Premier League's truly underrated players. He lacks the physical presence of his center back partner Brede Hangeland, he isn't particularly quick, and you won't see him dashing in to make dramatic last-ditch blocks. Instead, Hughes is an extremely intelligent defender with good positioning. He's also decent on the ball. No other defender in Premier League history has played more games -- almost 400 -- than Hughes without being sent off, which is a testament to his calm, composed style. Only the current top four has a better defensive record than Fulham, and Hughes is one of the main men responsible.
Defender: Leighton Baines, Everton
By far the Premier League's best attacking fullback this season, Baines has contributed three goals and 10 assists -- many of which are as a result of his telepathic understanding with Tim Cahill, who has nodded plenty of Baines crosses into the net in recent years. Baines is a reliable threat even from his deep position; Everton's late equalizer at Stamford Bridge this past December came after constant pressure from Baines down the left, while he returned to that ground to net a superb free kick in this season's FA Cup.
Midfielder: Lucas Leiva, Liverpool
Among managerial changes, high-profile transfers and injury problems at Anfield, Lucas has put in disciplined, reliable displays in the center of midfield. The Brazilian has received plenty of criticism since arriving in England -- he's not a tough tackler, nor particularly exciting on the ball -- but his energy and positional awareness is good, and he distributes the ball calmly and reliably to the creative players. Ironically, Lucas might not even have gotten his chance were it not for Javier Mascherano's move to Barcelona just after the start of the season. Since then, he's established himself as a key man under Roy Hodgson and now Kenny Dalglish.
Midfielder: Scott Parker, West Ham
Parker has been so crucial for West Ham that pundits don't know whether to praise his leadership qualities or his technical ability. The crucial comeback against West Brom in February was because of an "inspirational" Parker team talk at halftime, to use Carlton Cole's word, while Parker's passing range and drive from midfield has demonstrated his on-pitch influence. His finest moment was his beautiful gentle half-volley with the outside of his foot at home to Liverpool, one of the goals of the season. A good bet to be the Football Writers' Player of the Year.
Midfielder: Luka Modric, Tottenham
Gareth Bale may have been voted the PFA Player of the Year, but many Tottenham fans don't even think he's been their club's best player this season. They cast their vote for Modric. Having taken a while to adjust to the Premier League following his arrival in 2008, and often played out of position too high up the pitch, Modric's form in a deep-lying playmaker role has been fantastic. Able to play ambitious crossfield balls to Spurs' wingers and direct through balls to the strikers, Modric is a joy to watch.
Midfielder: Samir Nasri, Arsenal
The Frenchman's form has dipped in recent months, but Nasri has still put in enough good performances this season to be worthy of a place on this list. His close control and passing ability have never been in doubt, but he's become much more of a goal threat this season. Nasri attributes his new-found scoring potential to playing slightly higher up the pitch, and he simply appears more confident when he gets the ball in dangerous positions.
Midfielder: Stewart Downing, Aston Villa
Aston Villa's Marc Albrighton impressed with his early displays, and Ashley Young is more likely to find himself in the headlines, but Downing's form this season has been exceptional. He's far from a spectacular player, but he simply does his main tasks well, delivering crosses into the box (regardless of which wing he's used on), and also offers his fullback great protection. For Downing, six goals and eight assists is impressive in a Villa side that has struggled this year.
Forward: Carlos Tevez, Manchester City
He's been absolutely fantastic in an extremely difficult role. Used up front alone in a 4-2-3-1 system for most of the year, Tevez doesn't just stay up top and wait for service, he comes deep, links play and encourages his teammates up the pitch. In other words, the Argentine is more than a striker, he's also often City's main playmaker. His work rate -- despite supposedly wanting to leave the club -- has also been impressive. Tevez has been less impressive since January, perhaps not coincidentally the same time Roberto Mancini bought another striker, Edin Dzeko, but his overall season has been outstanding.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
Ali Al-Habsi, Wigan: Started as a backup but forced his way into the side and has remained there.
Chris Samba, Blackburn: Dominant in his penalty box and a threat at the other end.
Youssuf Mulumbu, West Brom: Powerful presence in midfield and some great goals.
Stuart Holden, Bolton: The driving force behind many of Bolton's good displays.
Joey Barton, Newcastle: Thankfully quiet off the pitch this season, but very noticeable on it.
Charlie Adam, Blackpool: The main reason for Blackpool's great early season form.
Matthew Etherington, Stoke: Tricky wing play and lots of dangerous crosses.
Matt Jarvis, Wolves: Good performances on either flank resulted in an England call.
Asamoah Gyan, Sunderland: Positive first season in England with some excellent goals.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
- Ribery, Benzema charged with soliciting minor
- Ex-U.S. coach denies Solo's shoving allegation
- Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta UEFA award finalists
- Kompany: Van Persie would boost any team